Exploration of Africa’s Congo Basin Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Through the 1870’s, the exploration, mapping, and establishment of trading posts and treaties in the Congo Basin began to spark political interest in the region, especially from Belgium, France, and Portugal, that led to the partition of the region among European powers during the following decade.

Summary of Event

From the late fifteenth century through the mid-nineteenth century, central Africa’s Congo Basin was an important focus for trade with Europeans, especially in slaves. As the Atlantic slave trade was gradually abolished during the nineteenth century, European interest in controlling the Congo began to grow, at the same time that many of the region’s African societies were becoming eager to unify under a European power for protection against their neighbors. Exploration of the region prepared the way for political jostling during the late 1870’s. Africa;exploration of Exploration;Congo Basin Congo Basin;exploration of Stanley, Henry Morton Brazza, Pierre-Paul-François-Camille Savorgnan de Leopold II [p]Leopold II[Leopold 02];and Congo[Congo] Cameron, Verney Lovett [kw]Exploration of Africa’s Congo Basin (1873-1880) [kw]Africa’s Congo Basin, Exploration of (1873-1880) [kw]Congo Basin, Exploration of Africa’s (1873-1880) [kw]Basin, Exploration of Africa’s Congo (1873-1880) Africa;exploration of Exploration;Congo Basin Congo Basin;exploration of Stanley, Henry Morton Brazza, Pierre-Paul-François-Camille Savorgnan de Leopold II [p]Leopold II[Leopold 02];and Congo[Congo] Cameron, Verney Lovett [g]Congo;1873-1880: Exploration of Africa’s Congo Basin[4640] [g]Africa;1873-1880: Exploration of Africa’s Congo Basin[4640] [c]Exploration and discovery;1873-1880: Exploration of Africa’s Congo Basin[4640] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;1873-1880: Exploration of Africa’s Congo Basin[4640] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;1873-1880: Exploration of Africa’s Congo Basin[4640] Serpa Pinto, Alexandre Alberto da Rocha de Brito Capello, Hermenegildo Carlos de Ivens, Roberto

Explorers’ Routes in the Congo Basin





The story of nineteenth century central African exploration begins with David Livingstone Livingstone, David [p]Livingstone, David;and Henry Morton Stanley[Stanley] , who made Africa a subject of wonder to the Western world during the late 1850’s and 1860’s. In 1868 he lost contact with Europe while searching for the source of the Nile Nile River;exploration of in the interior of East Africa. East Africa;exploration of The Welsh-born American journalist Henry Morton Stanley was sent by the New York Herald New York Herald;and Henry Morton Stanley[Stanley] to find him. In 1871, Stanley found Livingstone at Ujiji, on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika Tanganyika, Lake , one of the great central African lakes east of the Congo Basin.

In 1872, before Stanley’s news reached Great Britain, the British explorer Verney Lovett Cameron was also sent to find Livingstone. By then Livingstone had died. After Cameron found Livingstone’s grave in 1873, he located Lake Tanganyika’s western outlet, the Lukuga River. Before heading southwest, he went farther west, to the Lualaba River, which some geographers thought might feed into the Nile. Although he went only a short distance on the Lualaba, he rightly surmised that it flowed into the Congo River, not the Nile.

In 1875, Cameron made a several-hundred-mile journey along the Congo-Zambezi Zambezi River watershed, noting the wealth of copper in Katanga on his way to the west coast, which he reached on November 7, 1875, near Benguela. He also discovered that tribal leaders appeared to be eager to unify for peace, and he obtained agreements from several chiefs to cede their rights to their land in return for protection. However, as Cameron was later to learn, Great Britain apparently was not greatly interested in establishing a protectorate over that part of Africa. However, Belgium’s King Leopold II was.

Seeing an opportunity to make money and secure a colony for his tiny European country, Leopold met with Cameron in 1876 and garnered support from several European countries in Brussels to establish the International African Association International African Association (IAA), which presented itself as an international humanitarian effort to bring Western civilization to the people of Africa. The participating countries formed national committees to raise money for their own delegations, but they all eventually pursued their own political interests in the region. Soon, it became clear that the IAA was merely the first of several organizations that Leopold was forming to enrich himself.

By 1877, Leopold concluded that the best way to suppress slave Slave trade;central African trafficking and tribal warfare in central Africa was to establish European-controlled trade in goods along the Congo River. No longer interested in Cameron, he tried to recruit the Italian-born French explorer, Pierre-Paul-François-Camille Savorgnan de Brazza for an African venture. As a French naval officer, de Brazza had explored the Ogowe (Ogoué) River basin inland from the coast of Gabon, to the north of the Congo River mouth. In 1877, he had gone up the Ogowe to its source and reached the Alima River, a tributary of the Congo. De Brazza, however, apparently wished to remain loyal to France, for nothing came of Leopold’s overtures to him. The king then approached Stanley, who by 1877 had become a well-known explorer.

Stanley had already circumnavigated Lake Victoria and explored Lake Tanganyika Tanganyika, Lake to its southwest during the mid-1870’s. He confirmed what Cameron had surmised: that the Lualaba River was in fact part of the Congo River system. He followed the Lualaba down to the Congo and reached the Atlantic coast in August, 1877. After failing to find financial support in Britain for further exploration work, Stanley accepted Leopold’s commission in 1879. He work was to be conducted under the auspices of Leopold’s Comité d’ Études du Haut-Congo, Survey Committee for the Upper Congo, which later became known as the International Congo Association International Congo Association . The organization was founded and ultimately financed by Leopold himself, not the Belgian government.

De Brazza felt that French interests were being threatened by Leopold and Stanley’s plans to create a west-to-east trading route along the Congo River, so he planned a new expedition of his own while he was in Paris. He decided to search for the Upper Congo from the source of the Ogowe and then travel by land to Stanley Pool (now Pool de Malebo) on the Lower Congo. He succeeded in reaching the Upper Congo ahead of Stanley in 1879. By the following year, he had obtained numerous treaties ceding control of the area to France, including one from Makoko, a tribal chief with wide hereditary claims to the surrounding territory. He built a fort on a village on the north side of Stanley Pool. The French protectorate he labored to establish officially became the French Congo in 1891, and the location where he built the fort became the colony’s capital, which was named Brazzaville in his honor.

Meanwhile, Stanley made his way upriver from the Congo’s mouth in 1879 and unexpectedly met de Brazza at Vivi, one of several trading and administrative stations Stanley had founded on his way upriver. Among de Brazza’s motives in moving downriver was to explore the possibility of building a railroad that would connect the trading posts in the region, an idea that Stanley had also championed. Not surprisingly, Stanley was annoyed to discover that de Brazza had reached the Upper Congo ahead of him. Meanwhile, King Leopold’s agents were intercepting de Brazza’s letters. When Leopold learned of de Brazza’s plans, he urged Stanley to hurry. Stanley finally reached the Upper Congo in 1881. He also secured treaties near Stanley Pool that would ultimately secure the south bank of the region for Leopold.

As Portugal Portugal;and Africa[Africa] observed the speed with which France and Leopold’s agents were establishing posts in the Congo Basin, its government began to assert its claims to territories with which it had deep historical connections through centuries of missionary Missionaries;in Central Africa[Central Africa] work and trading near the coast and along the mouth of the Congo River. Portugal launched its own scientific explorations to map the southwestern region of the Congo Basin, notably with the journeys of naval officers and scientists Alexandre Alberto da Rocha de Serpa Serpa Pinto, Alexandre Alberto da Rocha de Pinto, Hermenegildo Carlos de Brito Capello Brito Capello, Hermenegildo Carlos de , and Roberto Ivens Ivens, Roberto . These three men departed from Benguela and headed toward central Angola Angola , but Capello and Ivens soon separated from Pinto, who set off to the southeast and eventually reached the coast. Capello and Ivens meanwhile explored the southwestern part of the Congo Basin, mapping out the territory between the Upper Zambezi Zambezi River and the Upper Congo before returning to Lisbon in 1880. During the 1880’s, Portugal petitioned Great Britain Portugal;and Great Britain[Great Britain] Great Britain;and Portugal[Portugal] to recognize its claims in the Congo, an issue that would not be settled for another decade.


The European explorations of the Congo Basin paved the way for the partition of central Africa during the 1880’s among France, Portugal, and Leopold’s International Congo Association. De Brazza’s work led to the establishment of the French Congo, which became part of French Equatorial Africa after 1910, in the area making up much of the present-day Republic of the Congo. Portugal’s claim to the land between Mozambique Mozambique and Angola Angola was officially recognized by France and Germany in 1886, but Britain, by threatening violence, forced Portugal out of the interior in 1890.

During the early 1880’s, Stanley completed a road from Vivi to the west coast and collected more than 450 treaties from tribal chieftains that ceded most of the Congo Basin to the International Congo Association. The association’s central African domain became the Congo Free State Congo Free State after the Berlin West Africa West Africa;and European imperialism[European imperialism] Conference met in 1884-1885. The United States and thirteen other countries recognized the area as an independent state headed by Leopold II. The association agreed to abide by certain humanitarian principles, including the suppression of the slave trade. However, in order to build a railroad and continue a profitable trade in rubber Rubber;trade and ivory, Ivory the Congo Free State’s extensive monopoly exacted what was essentially forced labor from Africans. Responding to pressure from Christian missionaries Missionaries;in Central Africa[Central Africa] and the Congo Reform Association Congo Reform Association , the Belgian parliament annexed the region in 1908, establishing the Belgian Congo Belgian Congo , which limited the power of the king over the region. The Belgian Congo remained a colony until 1960, when it became the independent Democratic Republic of the Congo. That country later changed its name to Zaire Zaire , but by the twenty-first century, it had reverted to the name it had at independence.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cameron, Verney Lovett. Across Africa. 1877. Reprint. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969. Firsthand account of the Scottish explorer’s travels, with maps and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Capello, Hermenegildo Carlos de Brito, and Roberto Ivens. From Benguella to the Territory of Yacca. Translated by Alfred Elwes. 1882. Reprint. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969. This early translation of the Portuguese explorers’ account of their travels from 1877-1880 is still the best source in English for details about Capello and Ivens. Includes maps and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. London: Pan, 2002. Scholarly but accessible work that focuses on the atrocities committed by the Congo Free State under the direction of Leopold II. Includes a section discussing the events that led up to creation of Leopold’s private African domain.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newman, James L. Imperial Footprints: Henry Morton Stanley’s African Journeys. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 2004. Illustrated study of Stanley that concentrates on his journeys themselves, rather than on the psychology and personality of the explorer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">West, Richard. Congo. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972. Illustrated study of the French, British, Belgian, and German explorations in the region includes an entertaining chronicle of de Brazza and Stanley’s personal rivalry.

Exploration of West Africa

Exploration of North Africa

Exploration of East Africa

Livingstone Sees the Victoria Falls

Berlin Conference Lays Groundwork for the Partition of Africa

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Mary Kingsley; Leopold II; David Livingstone; Henry Morton Stanley. Africa;exploration of Exploration;Congo Basin Congo Basin;exploration of Stanley, Henry Morton Brazza, Pierre-Paul-François-Camille Savorgnan de Leopold II [p]Leopold II[Leopold 02];and Congo[Congo] Cameron, Verney Lovett

Categories: History